Healthy Options for All Income Levels

As the wellness market matures, consumers across all demographics are looking to manage any number of specific health concerns.

By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.

When Bob Sickles was growing up on his family’s New Jersey farm, he ate plenty of homegrown produce and acquired an affinity for non-processed foods. “Of course, we had Pop Tarts and all the other things that people have,” said Sickles, who later studied nutrition in school. “But I’m mostly a fresh food eater.”

Today the owner of Sickles Markets in Little Silver, N.J., Sickles offers his customers a selection of fresh and better-for-you options, as well as traditional fare. Grab-and-go salads and cups of fresh fruit are in demand, along with brown rice plus peas and yogurt topped with fruit and granola. Healthy food “has been the mantra for a while,” he said.

Sickles and his customers are not unique. According to Mintel International, the consumer research organization, Americans indicate an increased interest in consuming healthier diets, including natural and organic foods and beverages.

One reason is the graying of the population, with older consumers recognizing that they must focus on their health in order to prolong a good quality of life. Another is rapid growth in the 25-34-year-old age group. Many in that segment are starting families and want to ensure that their youngsters receive the best possible nutrition.

Health Concerns
The 2010 Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation confirms what any casual people-watcher already knows—two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children in the U.S. are either overweight or obese. This fact is reflected in increased cases of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems.

Observers believe that the situation is more pronounced among low-income families because they have less money to spend on healthy foods. According to a 2009 report from the Department of Agriculture, approximately 11.5 million Americans, or 4.1% of the population, live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. As a result, many rely on convenience stores for grocery shopping, even though the selection of fresh and healthy foods is often limited.

Despite the statistics, many convenience retailers nationwide are cognizant of the trend toward healthier foods and are adding better-for-you items to store shelves. “It’s something we’re progressively getting into,” said Tim Cote, vice president of marketing for Plaid Pantry, the 100-store chain headquartered in Beaverton, Ore. He estimates that 5-10% of the chain’s existing product mix is considered “healthy” and that figure could be as high as 12% within the year.

Currently, Plaid Pantry offers the Brothers-All-Natural dehydrated fruit line, plus dried fruit from Think Fruit. Both are portable, free of fat and gluten and low in sodium. In the frozen foods section, a growing category for the chain, customers can select offerings from Healthy Choice.

“We also carry a brand of better-for-you nutrition bars,” said Cote, referring to the Kind Healthy Snacks line. Cote agreed that healthy food products do cost slightly more. “The fact is that most items that are better for you are also more expensive,” he said. “Natural and organic ingredients command a premium. A similar, but more mainstream (nutrition) bar, would cost 10-15% less. It’s a small premium.”

Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, the Canastota, N.Y. chain with 80 locations in upstate New York, has a successful foodservice program that offers customers several healthy and better-for-you choices.

“We sell quite a bit of fresh fruit,” said Jack Cushman, vice president of foodservice for Nice N Easy. The fruit is delivered in bulk to the stores and then cut and packaged to ensure the freshest possible product. “You just have to charge what its worth.”

Healthy Corner Store
Making healthier food choices is often a matter of education and availability, according to The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group. The organization is working to make affordable, nutritious food accessible to all people and to ensure that youngsters are aware of the importance of eating healthily.

In 2004, The Food Trust created the Healthy Corner Store Initiative (HCSI) to help make better-for-you snacks available in many of Philadelphia’s convenience outlets—typically mom-and-pop stores that are often found in low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

“Our research showed that students were spending $1.07 on snacks and beverages and consuming 360 calories per visit [to a corner store],” said Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, project manager for HCSI. The program helps those stores to source, merchandise and sell healthy snacking options, while allowing the youngsters to spend approximately the same amount of money.

Participation in the program is simple. HCSI store members simply introduce a minimum of four new healthy items, although some operators have added considerably more. Store owners receive a list of suggested items, including canned goods, whole grain products, dairy items and lean meats. They also receive training, support, sourcing and marketing materials, plus a $100 bonus for participating in the program, and they can apply to receive shelving and refrigerated equipment to help merchandise their new line of healthy merchandise.

The goal is to get healthy foods in front of consumers, and store operators are not required to upsell the products. According to Sandoval, it’s extremely important to the program that the stores make a profit on the new merchandise. “Overall, it’s a good business model,” she said.

Helping the Community
There are two schools within a few blocks of Oliviarie’s Food Market in Philadelphia. Owner Clara Santos said that many of the students visit her store twice a day, frequently purchasing sodas and chips. In the past, Santos hesitated to introduce new items because she wasn’t certain that customers would buy them. But when invited to participate in HCSI, she said, “Let’s give it a try.”

Now a one-year member, both of Oliviarie’s Food Markets display fresh fruits and vegetables in attractive baskets provided by HCSI, and Santos is pleased to see youngsters choose a bright red apple over a packaged snack with a lengthy shelf-life. She also has received positive feedback from her adult customers who live nearby. They like the convenience of picking up fresh items at the neighborhood market instead of traveling to a grocery store.

HSCI also works with local schools and the public health department to educate citizens about eating better and plans to research the program’s impact on the city’s youth. Meanwhile, the program is expanding. From its initial membership roster of 11 corner stores, HCSI has grown to include more than 500 retail members in Philadelphia, and the program has been adopted by municipalities in several states.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” Santos said of the effort. “It’s a way I’m helping the community, and I’m happy to do that.”

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